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Peeping Tom Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 13, 2010

    Peeping Tom Review

    The snuff film as high art. Michael Powell's once vilified masterpiece, Peeping Tom, reaches its 50th Anniversary and to celebrate it, Optimum have released the film in a gloriously remastered 1080p transfer on Blu-ray, as well as the film being presented on the big screen for a limited run of special showings.from the 19th November 2010.

    “I don't trust a man who' walks quietly.”

    “He's shy.”

    “His footsteps aren't. They're stealthy.”

    The film that destroyed the career of one of Britain ’s leading cinematic talents, 1960’s brave and controversial forerunner to the perennial psycho-drama remains just as disturbing a portrait of obsessive psychosis today, even after a veritable sub-genre of horror films have delved ever more deeply into the mental morass of the celluloid madman. As the brilliant Michael Powell asserted and, later on, Martin Scorsese too, when he aided Powell’s film to return to the public eye and receive the recognition it deserved by placing it as a showpiece at film festivals, Peeping Tom is about the destructive, soul-corrupting nature of film itself, rather than merely the dark dementia of the damaged and voyeuristic mind. And even if the killer is revealed from the outset, in something of a cinematic coup, it is a film that doesn't allow any of us off the hook either.

    Powell, long the darling of his filmic caretaker Martin Scorsese, had reached a creative impasse when screenwriter Leo Marks approached him with the idea of a film about Freud. His celebrated partnership with Hungarian Emeric Pressburger had been amicably dissolved back in 1956, with their last major success, The Red Shoes, eight years before that, and only a string of less fantastic and less well-received pictures coming afterwards (The Wild Heart, Oh … Rosalinda and The Battle Of The River Plate etc). Whilst Pressburger was, in a sense, moving on in terms of style and theme away from Powell's favoured lyrical fantasy, the directing half of The Archers (as the two were collectively known) was left in something of a production wasteland. The idea of a stylised Freud biography was snatched away from them when John Huston made his own version with Montgomery Clift in the title role, so ex-Second World War cryptographer Marks regaled him with something else, his powerful screenplay for the tale of a serial killer who films his victims as they die in a sort of last ditch experiment to help him expunge the traumas of his own abused childhood. Immediately, Powell was entranced by the concept, elated to discover that here, at long last, was the possibility of making a movie about making a movie, but insidiously stripping away all that fake glamour and glitz that the industry loved to en-drape itself with to reveal the monster that lurked at the heart of that charade of “performance”. It was certainly a risky undertaking given the nature of the beast, and especially risky for someone of his renowned and respectable calibre.

    Yet, for all of the scorn that he must have known some critics would be bound to throw his way for such an apparent deviation from form, Powell made sure that the production was a happy and a light-hearted one. He always maintained that Peeping Tom was “just a film”, almost poking fun at the irony of such an assumption when you considered the subject matter of the project.

    He created a lurid opera of profound intensity. One that can sit at a pinnacle of British cinematic imagination and endeavour - it marries-up the pseudo-grit of the prevalent police procedural with the realism of modern London culture, fashions and attitudes – yet it proudly, defiantly goes deeper into the jaded tastes and underground perversions that coursed beneath the veneer of such outward respectability. It didn't reflect the mores of the times, as such, it probed into its crudest and most hidden recesses. Unsurprisingly, critics didn't like what they found there, but the real shame was that due to their arsenic-laced lack of appreciation, the distribution of Powell's film was utterly squandered and, with poor advertising and venomous word of mouth, audiences weren't even given the opportunity to make up their own minds about a film that we now know was way ahead of its time. There was a definite darkness residing in the heart of both Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, also a certain doom-struck, destiny-bound melancholy in the charming A Matter Of Life And Death, but Peeping Tom was, in many ways and to many-a-viewer who could actually sit and watch it, a million miles away in tone and substance. Death, and the shattering of the life/art barrier was a taboo of incendiary proportions back when it had never been encountered before. Hitchcock had pushed the boundaries of the celluloid narrative with Rope, Rear Window and Vertigo, and Hammer had broken new ground in terms of graphic gore and violence with The Quatermass Xperiment and, of course, both Dracula and The Curse Of Frankenstein, which came out to great mass-acclaim only a couple of years before Peeping Tom. But with their sensationalist, almost comic-book Kensington Gore, both of these now-stately horrors were able to submerge their psychological dimensions, and no audience member would really be caught empathising with the Count, the Baron, with Van Helsing or with the mismatched monster.

    Peeping Tom put us in the company of a killer and demanded that we we come to like him. Ealing this most certainly was not.

    The fact that we get to know that the introverted yet dedicated studio focus-puller Mark Lewis (played with a golden haired Peter Lorre creepiness by Karlheinz Boehm) is a murderer right from the get-go, and that we stay with him throughout the film was probably the main reason for the critical shunning of Peeping Tom. At this stage in the game, as I have intimated, killers were monsters, they were bogeymen, they were cruel villains who were outwardly scurrilous and evil, and they just couldn’t pass for “one of us”. They certainly weren’t shy young men that you actually pitied. But whereas Norman Bates in Psycho – that other cultural thunderclap that sent seismic tremors through an unprepared society and brought about the birth of an entirely new sub-genre for the Horror Film – was portrayed quite readily as a victim as much as he was a murderer, we still empathised with him because he was so charming and innocently charismatic. Mark Lewis, on the other hand, may be no less socially pathetic and inadequate, but he had an unerringly alien quality to him that totally distanced us from him. He may have been able to walk the streets without heads turning and accusatory fingers pointing, but his cold and implacable, almost emotionless demeanour was something that set him apart from the rest of us. Boehm plays him like a human camera, his eyes forever scrutinising, always recording details, always observing with stark, detached fascination as real life moves on around him, his own brain confusing what he sees as the “reel-life” that he needs to photograph and capture for his own mixed-up crusade of self-exorcism. Yet even as he traps and murders his unsuspecting women, and courts the virginal, but still rather forward Helen Stephens, from downstairs (Anna Massey, looking a lot like Marge Simpson, but with ginger hair rather than blue), we come to understand his strangled, personality-starved psychology, even respect him for his undoubted skills and lucid calm when all the fastidious and over-acting charlatans that surround him at the film studio only amuse and irritate us.

    In something that would become a cliché in movies from decade-or-so later, we are able to see some of the incidents from his cruel past, the things that have made him the emotionally haunted killer that he is today. But, even more cleverly than showing us these events in the all-too-convenient flashback device, Mark's mistreatment has actually been filmed and can be viewed by him as periodic, almost ritualised self-punishment in his cinema-lair back home. His father, you see, was a psychiatrist who was obsessed with getting to the root of “fear”, itself (shades of the inspired but rather dull 1973 chiller, The Asphyx). He would virtually terrorise the young Mark in the name of research and film each and every act of “scientific persecution”, all of these films now residing in Mark's collection. Traumatised by such an upbringing, Mark feels the need to take this search for the face of fear – passed now from father to son – to its logical conclusion. He has attached a mirror to his handheld camera so that the last thing that his victims see is their own terrified face as the dagger-like tripod leg is thrust into their throat.

    Whilst murder and child abuse is bad enough for viewers to stomach, the most troubling aspect of this backstory is that it is Michael Powell, himself, who plays Mark's father in these unsettling home-movies, and Powell's own real-life so, Columba, playing the young Mark. This was certainly interpreted as breaking the cinematic wall between life and art, and it remains bothersome even now. Although I have to say that I have nowhere near as much of a problem with this as I do with Dario Argento filming his then much younger daughter Asia getting raped, violated and terrorised in The Stendahl Syndrome – a film that is very probably inspired by Powell's frightening treatise of art and murder fuelling one-another.

    Steven Spielberg has a thing for eyes in his films, as I have discussed in other reviews, and Powell has a similar fascination. Aside from his work often being hugely visual in style – and Peeping Tom is no exception to this rule – he utilises film in its ultimate “voyeuristic” capacity. The very act of watching a movie is voyeurism. This, essentially, is the point that Powell seeks to remind us of. We are all “Peeping Toms”. He makes us witnesses to scenic beauty – Black Narcissus – or to powerfully intimate drama – A Matter Of Life And Death, I Know Where I’m Going – and, more so than a thousand other filmmakers, he has us, as viewers, feel as though we are observing things that are emotionally and intellectually private. With Peeping Tom, we become “eyes” that are unmercifully fixated upon Mark's atrocities, drawn into his spiralling and inescapable madness. With his lurid Eastmancolor, which represents a splendidly sick-rainbowed world of heightened, garish theatricality, Powell paints his imagery not unlike Italy’s visually macabre supremo, Mario Bava and, by extension, the opulently stylised Dario Argento, himself. In fact, Peeping Tom bears similarities to both Argento’s Suspiria and his later Opera (even away from The Stendahl Syndrome) - the former a more baroque version of Peeping Tom’s colour-scheme, and the latter actually stamping this “eye-of-the-beholder” fetish quite emphatically with, first of all, a bullet blasting through a victim’s eye-socket as she peers through a keyhole and, secondly, with the heroine’s eyes pinned-open as she is forced to witness the murder of her boyfriend. Like us, Mark’s victims are forced to witness their own horrific demise. Viewer-identification is, therefore, difficult to avoid. In a way, Powell is making us feel guilty for watching, making us silently, impotently complicit in what happens. It is perfectly telling and beautifully ironic that the only person who can see Mark for what he really is just happens to be blind. Helen's mother, who lives with her in the downstairs rooms of the very house that Mark was brought up in and now rents out, has been sightless for years, but her hearing and her instincts have become honed and magnified. Yet this does not preclude a peculiarly perverse desire to “see” what secrets he keeps in his darkroom. “Take me to you cinema,” she demands of him during the nerve-jangling scene when she confronts him about his odd hours and his tainted interest in her daughter. She, too, becomes fixated by something that she cannot comprehend, something that she cannot fully appreciate until, perhaps, it is too late. This is one the film's greatest scenes. Powerfully magnetic and wretchedly sinister at the same time, Powell's theme suddenly rams home the notion that we are all fireflies in the thrall of the light. Movies, whether we can see them or not, hold a spell over us. The camera, even if we are blind to its lens, still lures us into its hungry gaze.

    Powell secretes another blind performer into his cast, too. But this is part of a big joke that he is playing on the medium. For the film-within-a-film that stars Shirley Anne Field as a less-than-satisfactory, but necessarily attractive actress, Powell has the fictional director played by a frequently exasperated Esmond Knight. He even sees to it that the character is called Arthur Baden … after Baden Powell, another figure – real, this time, - who has played an important and influential role in the lives of young boys. No doubt this was a slight retaliation for Leo Marks calling his central character Mark Lewis, which is a neat, reverse-rhyming pun on his own name. Filmic in-jokes abound, Powell almost bending over backwards to inform us that we shouldn't take this dark and subversive exposé of movie-making too seriously. Yet such thematically jovial asides fell on deaf ears and upon further blind eyes, or rather eyes that chose not to see. Such knowing direction and storytelling is now the major province of indie-filmmakers, but then Powell, at heart, was distinct and a breed-apart from the rest of the British batch of directors and, funnily enough, this very “Britishness” was what made him so unique from his American counterparts.

    Boehm, patently not British, is wonderful as Mark. He has moments of looking like Simon Ward and even moments – such as when we see him descend one flight of steps and climb another on the studio set to spy upon the police investigation following-up one of his murders – when he resembles David Bowie (another image/art fixated camera disciple). But his performance is unnerving, amusing, deviant, electric … all at once. With the theme of life imitating art being his own paternally manipulated doctrine, we see him begin to almost unconsciously copy the expressions and actions of those around him, almost as though he is rehearsing humanity for his own film. Although the way that he erotically caresses that camera tripod seems to be something that he learned all by himself. Yet Mark is not without a sense of humour, albeit of the gallows variety. There is a terrific scene, when he and other members of the film-within-a-film production team (slyly, it is called “The Walls Are Closing In”!) are sitting awaiting their turn to be interviewed by the police (two awesome British stalwarts in Jack Watson as Chief Insp. Gregg and Nigel Davenport as Sgt. Miller), in which he actually playfully confesses to an amused colleague about his mental condition, and the fact that he believes the cops will catch him in the end. The two are, of course, talking at cross-purposes, but it clear that Mark is having some dark fun by hiding literally in plain sight, and the moment is one of perverse delight. By the same token, there is genuine magic on show when Helen is finally able to detach Mark from that camera, which is almost physical extension to his body, and they go out for a meal at a local restaurant. Mark, for the first and, indeed, only time that we see, acts like a normal human being, freed from his curse, even if only for an hour or two. This is where the emotional booby-trap comes in. Now, we want this murderer to find peace and happiness. We discover that we really do care what happens to him. We don't want him to be caught. Ouch! That's a real stinger. Nowadays, with the likes of hero-nutjob Hannibal Lector on the loose, this sort of empathy is a given. Back then, it was positively unheard of and strictly unforgivable.

    Michael Powell's best films have traditionally been built around some magnificent female performances … and Peeping Tom is no exception.

    Moira Shearer suffered for her art in Powell and Pressburger’s immortal classic The Red Shoes, but here in Powell's proto stalk 'n' slasher, the director has her suffer for someone else’s. As one of the production team at the film studio, her flame-headed beauty, Vivian, also likes to be photographed by Mark. Although she doesn't last all that long in the film, Shearer's enchanting persona becomes one of its most memorable components. Once again, the lass seems condemned to dance towards her destiny, although Mark has other motivations for her farewell performance. And, in the true irony that proves Powell's point, if not Mark's, the camera loves her. It worships her. The film can certainly be described as an adult fairytale, but it is this candy-store coloured and exquisitely lit set-piece murder sequence that most delivers the frisson of a dark and tainted fantasy. It is Snow White and the huntsman without the sudden change of heart. It is Little Red Riding Hood discovering that the Big Bad Wolf is filming her torments for Youtube. It is a scene of incredible beauty and savage intention. And if the inherent theatricality robs it of some violent impact, the set design and colour scheme provide more visceral splendour than a dozen damsels getting sliced 'n' diced in a slew of gruelling Euro-horror. It is also a magnificently choreographed scene – both chaotic and intimate.

    Anna Massey is very good, although almost unbearably “English” as Helen. For my part, I find it difficult to fully understand her queer infatuation with Mark. Whilst her mother, played by the great Maxine Audley (who, for my money, steals the best female part in the film with a roguish over-protective malevolence of her own), has very definite reasons to come into conflict with him, not least her own barely veiled melange of desire and death-lust, Helen is painted as overtly liked by all and sundry – exhibited by her birthday party at the start, in which we are introduced to Mark's home-life – and all rather twee and slightly “mumsy”. Admittedly, Helen is another “odd” character, though. Marks and Powell deliberately attempt to evoke the feeling that both she and Mark are flip-sides of the same coin. They are both alienated, to vastly differing degrees, and they both find some irresistible solace in the other's company. However, I can't imagine anyone being anything other than even slightly worried by the behaviour of the camera-loving screw-loose in the attic, especially when he's just shown them footage of his own father tossing a lizard onto him as a child asleep in bed. Hmmm … I'm hearing alarm bells, even if Helen isn't.

    Much was made of model-trainer-turned-actress Pamela Green who shocked the few who saw the film with an early breast-revealing scene. Playing Mark's popular glamour model, Milly, and photographed in a seedy apartment above an equally seedy newsagent's, she is the epitome of the sarcastic, glib and often indifferent tart-character so beloved of London's period cinematic milieu. She also has the most hideous, cellulite-riddled thighs that have ever passed for flicker-screen “phwoarr”, making her supposedly erotic posing scenes somewhat less than appealing. Powell plays tricks on us here, too. If Milly's rather lozenge-shaped lower half is a turn-off, then there is always the demure redhead (they're nearly all redheads in this!) standing nonchalantly over by the window, barely covered by a piece of silk and smoking a cigarette … until she turns around, that is. Mark's sudden enthusiasm for her facial deformity is disturbing, even if he attempts to dress it up as a romanticised love of her eyes. As the film goes on, however, we learn that she is much, much safer the way she is, than if she had been more beautiful, but less striking … as it were. It is also worth mentioning that Brenda Bruce makes for a very alluring prostitute in the film's opening sequence, a scene that sums up the rest of the film in one bravura set-piece murder totally encapsulating our own helpless and voyeuristic complicity in this sordid affair.

    There is a faint trace of John Brahm's classic psycho-thriller Hangover Square (DVD reviewed as part of the Fox Horror Classics boxset), which starred the fabulous Laird Cregar as a psychotically unhinged concert pianist turned homicidal maniac, in the film’s starkly classical and jarring score, written almost entirely for piano, but with a searing string accompaniment during the climax. The music, from Brian Easdale, is deliberately uncomfortable and cold. The notes strike a dark and lonely path into unloved and jarring isolation. It is a score that surely dates the film, but it also helps to give it that one-of-a-kind speciality.

    With some controversial sequences and a tone that still feels morbidly squalid, Peeping Tom remains establishment-bucking. Its notoriety may be built on foolish mentalities and frail sensibilities, yet you can't help but feel happily sickened by Mark's devious art of decimation. The film's influences are vast and far-reaching. We've mentioned how Bava and Argento may have swooned to Powell's visuals and themes, but there is also Michael Mann's Manhunter with its psychotic, photograph-obsessed serial killer and his quasi-love affair/sanctuary with a blind woman, and Fincher's Se7en for its profoundly intelligent villain with a grand scheme that only he can fully appreciate needs more than just the sacrifice of others for it to reach completion. Peeping Tom may have been hidden for some time, but in its dormancy it was certainly still a very potent metaphor for the thin line between genius and psychosis.

    Powell understood the black magic of filmmaking and the depravity that it masks with lights and makeup. He understood that we are all voyeurs and that we all have secret yearnings to look at the unwatchable. In this way he practically presaged the rise of the Video Nasty, the legend of the snuff film and the current trend for both excess shock – A Serbian Film, anyone? - and handheld reality horror – Rec, Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity. Peeping Tom is, therefore, probably the most powerful and influential film that Britain's once most cherished director ever made. All of which makes it fairly obvious why the powers-that-were, at the time, were so up-in-arms about it. They were frightened by what it told them about themselves.

    Another bonafide classic makes it to Blu-ray. It still won't be to many people's tastes, of course, and it wears its art-house credentials quite unashamedly, but this is a magnificently subversive and still mightily relevant screen milestone that richly deserves every accolade that its re-evaluation has produced.

    Peeping Tom comes very highly recommended.